Book – Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett

To be clear, I only picked up this book after visiting Bletchley Park. Until then I was unaware of Ian Fleming’s involvement in the war. I did have an inkling that he was part of the Robert Fleming banking dynasty so my assumption that he was an upper class playboy with nothing better to do than write fantasy spy novels was pretty much on the mark.

Except he did a few things before he seriously started writing novels, pushing forty although became prolific very quickly, having at least a Bond novel and 1-2 other writing projects on the go simultaneously.
This book is littered with facts, names and numbers, both dates and after people’s names which made it a tough read that needed, focus something I don’t often possess but no doubt it took some serious years of research for Andrew Lycett to write it.

Like Rupert Everett’s book, Red carpets and other Banana skins, albeit without the delectable humour, it is a minefield of name dropping; Kennedy’s Churchill’s, Lord Beaverbrook, Noel Coward and Lord Rothermere, proprietor of Daily Mail.

The Robert Fleming that the bank is named after is Ian’s Grandfather who started the Fleming financial legacy. Fleming senior was living the transatlantic life when only the extremely wealthy did so and had a hand in the formation of BP. However, the most interesting fact was that his new wealth enabled him to build a large house in London, which was demolished to make way for the current American Embassy – a building unfortunately, I know all too well. [See Journal]

It amazes me that the young Ian Fleming, albeit expensively educated, had a role to play in the second world war, as I learnt visiting the Ian Fleming exhibition. However, it’s clear from the book that family connections played the bigger part although he became invaluable to Room 39 at Bletchley Park. It was soon realised that he had a head for spy work although he became so important to the Admiralty, not least because of his worldly experience and language skills, his life was never really put in danger except for a couple of close shaves. According to this book, he had the idea to get onboard a German war ship disguised as German soldiers to find the Enigma (uniform picked up from Cardington, Bedford, and my home town where all the enemy prisoner’s outfits were stored). This operation was aborted.

Although inevitable there were several family and friends killed during the war, including his father Valentine, Fleming lead a charmed life both in London, the country and frequently travelling abroad, for war business or pleasure.

Before WW2, Ian Fleming tried his hand in banking, with a view to making as much money as possible because what he really wanted to do was write. Although he didn’t feel cut out for being a city gent, he tried again after the war until family connections took him to The Times newspaper where he managed to bag a cushy managerial role as Foreign Editor, which seemingly gave him months off to write every year and a good salary.

Most importantly during his travels, he fell in love with Jamaica way back in the 1050’s which is where he was to build his home, Goldeneye and write his novels in years to come, including the children’s classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Ban. Still amazing to think there was so much international travel going on, even during the war – or perhaps because of the war. Of course it’s evident that Fleming loved cars and driving through Europe in his current prized possession gave him particular joy.

Whilst at the Times, and in truth throughout his life, Ian appeared to have the capacity to be a good and trusted friend and there are many mentions of him going good deeds and introducing his friend to contacts to help them in anyway he could.

I do wonder if in today’s multicultural Britain, networking will be so fruitful if there was a war? I think the Old Boys Network will still have its place but it will be the old boys’ network, not necessarily for the inter-racial young.

What took some time getting used to were the constant references throughout the book of the huge multitude of affairs. I’m aware that every generation thinks it invented sex but I can’t believe how much it appeared to be common knowledge that everyone seemed to be sleeping with everyone else. This was an age pre the liberated 1970s where it was unacceptable for a person of a certain age not to be married into the right social circles. It seemed perfectly acceptable to have you fun outside the marital home. Stiff upper lip indeed.

And Bond, sorry Fleming (I did actually write Bond by accident then) did just that as he slept his way around the world, a girlfriend in every port and then some. He truly cared for 2-3 of his girlfriends although none more important than Ann, who went through two marriages, the second to Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, making her a lady, whilst carrying on her S&M affair with Fleming. It’s a shame that once past forty and actively becoming a novel writer, Ann eventually divorced as he finally agreed to marry her and then their relationship soon became embittered and full of desolation. They lost a child whilst she was still married to the Lord but Ann was pregnant when they married and they finally had their own son, Casper. But there is barely a mention of him being anything other than an inconvenience to his father, who spent months away and didn’t seem to have a healthy father-son relationship, if at all. As was common in those days but that certainly does not make it right.

Ian didn’t give into divorce so he spent his final decade, ill and in a miserable marriage when he should have been enjoying the eventual huge success of the James Bond novels. However, it is said he may not have settled to write them without his wife by his side initially, even though she dreaded the weeks when she had to go to Jamaica with him each winter and started making excuses not to go or come back early, partly to carry on with her own long term affair, leaving Mr Fleming to carry on with his in Jamaica.

The couple were money-motivated and they were better together than apart, particularly as they more or less lived their international jet set lifestyle via the new Mrs Flemings £100,000 divorce settlement whilst Fleming built his writing career, an astronomical figure in the 1950s. Fleming hated his wife’s clever set of grand friends and her desire to entertain; he preferred a quieter life.

In any case, it is said that Fleming wrote his first book upon arriving in Jamaica purposefully one January, in 8 weeks flat. He kept Casper away from Jamaica for as long as he could, eventually building himself an outhouse to write in and letting him visit on holiday.

His Jamaica based mistress, Blanche Blackwell is the mother of Chris Blackwell, (who disappointedly turns out to be old Harovian!) who worked on the music for the ‘Dr No’ Bond film because of his family connection and his love of music. This leads him to founding Island Records.

I’ve obviously become a little more encapsulated by this story than I imagined given that I have written over 1000 words here barely making reference to my notes. But I maintain that I’m not a Bond fan and have never read a book or seen a film. Nor will I.

It’s Fleming’s war effort and his work with the Times that most intrigued me but it’s an interesting study as to where Fleming ends and Bond starts.

It’s sad that his good living, alcoholism and 80 a day cigarette habit lead to an early demise at 55. Even sadder that his son succeeded in committing suicide via a well practiced drug overdose aged 23. His father had died on his 12th birthday. 7½/10 Inspiration 7/10
September 14th 2009

Update: Interesting 007 related comment in Jeremy Clarkson column in Sunday Times this week

2 thoughts on “Book – Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett

  1. Is Bletchley Park interesting? My Dad told me about the Enigma machine when I was younger (he’s into war films and history – I was more into Ancient History but I listened all the same!)

    If you watch Bones one of the episodes in the new season has got a huge amount of references to James Bond especially when they find the car that was involved in the crime (the paint is Tungsten Silver or something like that but it’s nickname is Casino Royale and it’s an Aston Martin)

  2. Hi Hannah
    I never would have gone – even though I worked around the corner for 6 years – if the BF wasn’t fascinated by it and I was pleasantly surprised. The Ian Flemming connection was mind blowing hence reading the book. I’m not a Bond fan – still not – but it was interesting how he came to devise that character.
    I would go if you can – you get a season ticket with your price of admission so you can go back anytime for a year. If I find myself close by again, I’m going to pop in to get a closer and longer look. If you follow Stephen Fry – he’s a big supporter.
    Never seen Bones but will try and catch it – thanks!

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